Thursday, July 19, 2012

Writing 101: Are Prologues Really the Root of All Fiction Evil?

I love a good prologue. My first favorite writer always included them, and even when they read more like a first chapter than a novel introduction, I was always down. It wasn't until I started reading writing forums and looking at writer blogs that I realized some people hate them -- passionately, vehemently, unendingly. And if you start looking for writing tips at will, you're going to find a lot of know-it-alls who will tell you, over and over again, that prologues are anathema in fiction. 

I don't agree...and I'm here to defend prologues. 

Prologues, a History

Prologues have a long history as an integral part of fiction. Shakespeare and other playwrights opened their stories with prologues, generally delivered in a monologue, in order to set the stage for the audience. The prologue from Romeo and Juliet is famous ("In fair Verona, where we lay our scene...").

Since those early days of fiction writing, novelists have adopted their own version of the prologue -- but they still serve the same purpose. Authors use prologues to introduce a story, certain characters and situations. Sometimes, they're used to tell an important piece of a character's history. Sometimes, they're used at the beginning of series books to catch readers up on all that happened in the story before. Sometimes, maybe they're used too much.

Prologues, and Why Readers Hate Them

Prologues are a point of contention among many readers and writers, and there are some who say they're a terrible literary decision in just about all cases. One writer called them "the blight upon all who read."

Yeah, that's kind of harsh. If a bad prologue is the worst thing you have to face in a book, count yourself lucky. I'm reading a book right now that has -- at last count -- 15 different scenes of a character fooling around on Facebook. I am not even 40% of the way through this book. What I wouldn't give for a prologue that condenses all 15 of those scenes into a few concise paragraphs, right? 

Emphasis on the concise part. The main reason that some seem to so passionately hate prologues is because they tend to feel extraneous. If you start reading a book, you expect to get right to the interesting parts -- right? A chapter-length prologue that goes into a long, detailed backstory is only going to delay the enjoyment of the action readers are trying to reach. Too many ingredients can spoil any story. Prologues should serve as a delightful little appetizer before the main course, which begins in chapter 1. 

The Prologue Argument

What I'm saying is this: readers hate prologues when they don't serve a purpose. If yours introduces something important and helps to set the scene that I, as a reader, need to understand, then isn't it necessary? Your prologue shouldn't quite read the same as the rest of the book; it shouldn't be comprised of paragraphs that just as easily could have been written into the first chapter. It should do exactly what prologues have always done: set the scene. If it does, write it and forget about all the prologue hate.

After all, weren't they good enough for Shakespeare?

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  1. I think an example of a wonderful prologue is Paul McLain's The Paris Wife. It's short, gives us a taste of the story and the character, and gets the reader ready to dive into the rest of the story.

  2. I never knew that some people disliked prologues. I've always enjoyed them, and use them in my writing. I like to use the prolouge to skip ahead to a point in the book thats scary or interesting in some way and give the reader a taste of it. So, as they start chapter one they're wondering how I'll take them back to that scene.

    I think a good point you made was "A chapter-length prologue that goes into a long, detailed backstory is only going to delay the enjoyment of the action readers are trying to reach." I havn't read too many prologues like this, but I can understand how backstory can bog a book down. I think it's better to get backstory in pieces as you go.

    Very interesting post, thank you.

  3. The single best prologue I've ever read (and I now that I've remembered it, I'll be mentioning it on every prologue post I find) is from Dependence Day by Robert Newman. Just brilliant.